WHEN staff at Parkhead saw the name on the cheque in front of them, they thought they could smell a rat. Barry Ferguson, dyed-in-the-wool Rangers bad boy, paying for a Celtic season ticket? There had to be something untoward going on. They looked inquisitively at their customer, who was clearly not the captain of their arch rivals in person, hoping he would provide an explanation. The man in question just smiled politely and offered his

optimistic prediction for the year ahead. It was indeed a good season. At the end of it, the man for whom Ferguson had bought a ticket was broadcast live on TV, draped in green and white, grinning joyously from a bar in Seville. The die-hard Celtic fan was James Kane, the Rangers' captain's father-in-law. He held up his pint and thanked Barry for his generosity.

Had he been watching, Ferguson, who bought him a ticket again this year and has done for the past decade, would probably have smiled wryly back as he cursed under his breath. The 25-year-old, who is at the centre of a game of transfer cat-and-mouse involving Blackburn Rovers, Everton, and the Ibrox club which is determinedly holding out for more than the bids in the region of (pounds) 6m already offered for their prodigy, is not quite the dimwit or, indeed, as blinkered as he is popularly portrayed.

The rags-to-riches Barry Ferguson story begins on February 2, 1978, in a council-house estate

in the Earnock district of Hamilton. Maureen and Archie, a roof sheeter, were already the proud parents of 11-year-old Derek

when the addition to the family arrived. They moved briefly to

the neighbouring working-class town of Bellshill before settling back in Hamilton.

From an early age, Barry was

out scraping his knees on the

blaes pitch at Lawmuir Primary, dreaming of pulling on a Rangers jersey and running out in front of 50,000 adoring fans at a packed Ibrox Stadium. It was not long before there were signs of the dream becoming reality.

At the age of seven, he was already out-playing bigger boys at Lawmuir Primary and, alongside his best friend and later rival John Paul McBride, at Mill United Boys Club. The following year, he met his idol, Ian Durrant, at Ibrox.

By the time he was due to start secondary, word had spread about an 11-year-old footballing sensation.

Ian Cassells was the assistant principal teacher of maths at Brannock High School in Newarthill between 1984 and 1998. He was football crazy and coach of the school team. When he heard Barry's parents had decided to send their son to Brannock rather than

Bellshill, which was nearer their home and which his brother had attended, simply because of its

reputation for nurturing football

talent, he was delighted.

''I had heard all about Barry before he had even arrived at the school,'' says Mr Cassells, who is now principal teacher of maths at Chryston High. ''Jim Graham, the sports coach at Lawmuir, had talked about this budding footballer. And the first time I saw him play, I knew exactly what he meant.

''Even as a small boy his whole life was football. He would talk about it incessantly in class. It was all he wanted to do. His life and soul. We very quickly recognised that he was dedicated to becoming a footballer. And on the pitch, even from a very young age, he had outstanding vision and awareness of people round about him.''

So, with such natural talent,

was he an arrogant brat in the


Not at all, according to Cassells, who says he was fairly well-behaved and, although aware of his talent, firmly grounded, and not in the least bit cocky. ''He probably got into bother as most kids do, but he was likeable and always polite. His parents were very supportive and clearly encouraged him to pursue his footballing ambitions. But he was quite intelligent as well; the

sort of kid who, had he really applied himself at his lessons, would have left school with a good set

of qualifications.''

But Barry was not interested in maths or English. By the time he started second year, at the age of 13, he had been signed up by Rangers' youth programme. John Paul McBride was playing with Celtic Boys' Club and the talented pair had become the talk of many Lanarkshire towns.

Cassells says McBride was actually the most talented player around at the time but, perhaps, lacked the gritty determination and hunger of his contemporary.

''Barry was very small for his

age and his size probably stopped him playing at the highest representative level, but what he lacked

in size he made up for in ambition and dedication.

''He was training with Rangers and did his work experience at Rangers . . . the sort of things other boys would give their right hand

for. But his brother and dad always made sure he knew he was very

fortunate to be in that position and he never played up on it. He was never the sort of guy to say, 'this

is just the school football team, I'm not going to turn up'. He turned up faithfully, even although he was clearly playing with better players at the weekend.''

Every Easter and summer holiday were spent in England training

with clubs such as Manchester

United, Tottenham, Everton, and Chelsea. They had all expressed interest in signing him, but he hated being away from his family and was inutterably homesick.

At the age of 15, Barry was

rejected by the Scotland schools

system. He was devastated and reportedly ran home and burst into tears. His parents and brother urged him to prove them wrong. He joined Rangers full-time when he was 16, as a member of the groundstaff

and served his time cleaning boots and sweeping up, but also earn-

ing rave reviews with his per-

formances for the schoolboy and junior teams.

Barry had always been a boys'

boy but girls began to attract his

eye. The first girl he asked out, from the nearby Holy Cross secondary school, declined. He then asked her best friend: Margaret Kane, also

a Holy Cross pupil. She said yes

and they became childhood

sweethearts, later marrying in the Caribbean in June 2001. The couple have three children - Kyle, Connor, and Cara.

It was during his early 20s and just before his wedding, that the skipper stacked up numerous unsavoury headlines. The most

controversial came in August 2000 after he was involved in a fight

with Celtic fans in the Lanark-

shire village of Bothwell following an Old Firm derby in which he

was red-carded.

He later said he was ditching his bad-boy image for good but admitted that the west of Scotland was a hard place to raise a family because of the ever-present, ever-important religious divide.

The jewel in the Rangers' crown, who cost them nothing but gave them everything, will be sorely missed, not just by fans, family, and friends but also by those who admire him from a distance in the piano bar at the Hamilton Palace, where he and his friend, Craig Moore, are regulars.

John Paul McBride, who now plays for Partick Thistle, says his friend has changed little since they first met when Barry was eight and John Paul seven.

McBride, who went to school with Barry's wife, Margaret, said: ''Barry's just Barry. Really grounded. His dad's a really nice guy as well and I think that's why Barry's stayed just the same person now as he was then. He's a diehard Rangers fan and I'm

obviously a big Celtic fan and there was always a bit of banter flying about. We ran about together as

well as playing football.''

Regarding his former rival's

probable transfer, he said: ''At

the end of the day it's up to him.

It's hard for him up here; it's a

goldfish bowl.''

DREAM COME TRUE: the young Barry Ferguson, a diehard Rangers fan, met his idol, Ian Durrant, during a visit to Ibrox.

Main picture: Daily Record

CLASS ACT: former Brannock High football coach Ian Cassells encountered Ferguson at the school. ''On the pitch, even from a very young age, he had outstanding vision.''

Picture: Angela Catlin